Author Archive for
Duncan Hollis

Engaging the Writings of Martti Koskenniemi

by Duncan Hollis

MK2r_hollis (2)

Last Spring, Temple Law School was pleased to host a two day workshop on the scholarship of one of international law’s true giants – Martti Koskenniemi (simply put, I’m a big fan). Organized by my colleague, Jeff Dunoff, it was a great event with a wide-ranging conversation launching off Martti’s works in international legal theory, international legal history, fragmentation, interdisciplinary scholarship, ethics and the future of international law.  

Given how great the workshop was, I could not be more pleased to note that the accompanying papers have now been compiled and published in a single volume of the Temple International and Comparative Law Journal (vol. 27, no. 2). The full table of contents for the Symposium Issue can be found here

The papers include Jeff Dunoff’s framing introduction, a fascinating paper by Martti on the historiography of international law, and a slew of papers by renowned scholars, including Kim Scheppele, Tomer Broude, Sean Murphy, Mark Pollack, Rob Howse and Ruti Teitel, Samuel Moyn, Jan Klabbers, Andrew Lang and Susan Marks, Frédéric Mégret, and Ralf Michaels.  These papers address a number of themes that run through Koskenniemi’s work, including international law and empire; the fragmentation of international law; interdisciplinary approaches to international law; reading – and misreading – the tradition; and the international lawyer as ethical agent.  Both individually and collectively, the papers represent a significant effort to engage, explore, and extend the ideas found in Koskenniemi’s writings.

The special symposium issue is the first of what will be a tradition of yearly Symposia that will be organized by Temple faculty and published in the Journal.  As such, the Symposia marks a new form of collaboration between Temple faculty and students, and represent an experiment in academic publishing designed to provide students the experience of editing papers on cutting-edge research, and at the same time injecting faculty expertise into the selection and substantive editing of papers.

Now in Paperback: The Oxford Guide to Treaties

by Duncan Hollis

Just a quick note to flag for interested readers that Oxford has released a paperback version of my book, The Oxford Guide to Treaties.  Happily, it is significantly cheaper than the hardback version — it’s listed for under $60 on Amazon right now.  I hope that this edition will interest non-institutional buyers for whom the earlier price tag was a bit steep. See here and here for additional links.

Reading Tea Leaves in Confirmation Hearings for U.S. Cyber Commander

by Duncan Hollis

Last week, the U.S. Senate held confirmation hearings for Vice-Admiral Michael S. Rogers to replace General Keith Alexander as head of U.S. Cyber Command.  It’s interesting to see how both men received almost identical written questions in their respective 2014 and 2010 hearings.  More interesting perhaps are the similarities and variations in their responses with respect to how international law operates in cyberspace.

For example, in both 2010 and 2014, the Senate asked the nominee the same question: “Does the Defense Department have a definition for what constitutes use of force in cyberspace, and will that definition be the same for [U.S.] activities in cyberspace and those of other nations?

Here was Alexander’s written response:

Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter provides that states shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State. DOD operations are conducted consistent with international law principles in regard to what is a threat or use of force in terms of hostile intent and hostile act, as reflected in the Standing Rules of Engagement/Standing Rules for the Use of Force (SROE/SRUF). There is no international consensus on a precise definition of a use of force, in or out of cyberspace. Consequently, individual nations may assert different definitions, and may apply different thresholds for what constitutes a use of force. Thus, whether in the cyber or any other domain, there is always potential disagreement among nations concerning what may amount to a threat or use of force.

Remainder of answer provided in the classified supplement.

And this is what Vice Admiral Rogers provided to the Committee last week:

DoD has a set of criteria that it uses to assess cyberspace events. As individual events may vary greatly from each other, each event will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. While the criteria we use to assess events are classified for operational security purposes, generally speaking, DoD analyzes whether the proximate consequences of a cyberspace event are similar to those produced by kinetic weapons.

As a matter of law, DoD believes that what constitutes a use of force in cyberspace is the same for all nations, and that our activities in cyberspace would be governed by Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter the same way that other nations would be. With that said, there is no international consensus on the precise definition of a use of force, in or out of cyberspace. Thus, it is likely that other nations will assert and apply different definitions and thresholds for what constitutes a use a force in cyberspace, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, both hearings had the Senate asking “Could U.S. Cyber Command lawfully employ offensive cyber weapons against computers located abroad that have been determined to be sources of an attack on the United States or U.S. deployed forces if we do not know who is responsible for the attack (i.e., a foreign  government or non-state actors)?

General Alexander’s response:

The establishment of U.S. Cyber Command, in and of itself, does not change the lawful employment of military force for self-defense. In this case, if the “attack” met the criteria approved by the President in our Standing Rules of Engagement, the military would exercise its obligation of self-defense. Operationally, it is difficult to develop an effective response when we do not know who is responsible for an “attack”; however, the circumstances may be such that at least some level of mitigating action can be taken even when we are not certain who is responsible. Regardless whether we know who is responsible, international law requires that our use of force in self-defense be proportional and discriminate. Neither proportionality nor discrimination requires that we know who is responsible before we take defensive action.

Vice-Admiral Rogers got the same question plus an additional add-on sentence, asking ”Without confident “attribution,” under international law, would the Defense Department have the authority to “fire back” without first asking the host government to deal with the attack?”  His written response?

International law does not require that a nation know who is responsible for conducting an armed attack before using capabilities to defend themselves from that attack. With that said, from both an operational and policy perspective, it is difficult to develop an effective response without a degree of confidence in attribution. Likely, we would take mitigating actions, which we felt were necessary and proportionate, to defend the nation from such an attack. I’d note that in such an event, U.S. Cyber Command would be employing cyber capabilities defensively, in the context of self-defense.

For me, I was struck by (a) the new emphasis on the ‘effects test’ that’s been bantered about for years in terms of identifying what constitutes a use of force subject to Article 2(4); (b) the lessened attention to ‘classified responses’, which peppered Alexander’s original written responses and that are now (thanks to Edward Snowden I assume) largely absent from Rogers’ answers; and (c) the softening of the language regarding the U.S. willingness to respond in self-defense where attribution is a problem.

What do readers think?  Is this all one, harmonious, consistent U.S. policy?  Or, are there shifts in these responses that bear watching?  Anyone interested in comparing the remainder of the two testimonies can do so by seeing what Alexander wrote here versus Rogers’ more recent written responses here.

Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez: The Latest Supreme Court Treaty Interpretation Case

by Duncan Hollis

I’m a bit pressed for time, but wanted to offer a brief post calling readers’ attention to a US Supreme Court case that came down today – Lozano v. Montoya Alvarez.  In it, a unanimous Court interprets the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction to not allow equitable tolling of the requirement that a child be automatically returned to the country from which s/he was abducted in the one year period after the child is taken.  The case involved two Colombian nationals living in England in 2008 when the mother leaves with her child for France and then New York (via a shelter for victims of domestic violence).  The father was unaware where his child had been abducted to, and thus could not file for the return remedy provided for by Article 12 of the treaty.  After much searching, he located her in the United States in November 2010.  At that point, however, the near automatic-right of return for one year provided via Article 12 no longer applied and the Convention imposes a different standard – wherein courts must order the return of the child ‘unless it is demonstrated that the child is now settled in its new environment’ (emphasis added).  Lower courts found that the child had become settled and thus she remained in the United States pending the outcome of this litigation.

In its opinion, the Court interpreted Article 12 not to contain any equitable tolling possibility with respect to the one year period for the automatic right of return.  In doing so, it declined to apply the equitable tolling doctrine available for federal statutes to treaties, offering in the process some general statements on its approach to treaty interpretation:

For treaties, which are primarily “‘compact[s] between independent nations,’” Medellín v. Texas,  552 U. S. 491, 505 (2008), our “duty [i]s to ascertain the intent of the parties” by looking to the document’s text and context, United States v. Choctaw Nation, 179 U. S. 494, 535 (1900); see also BG Group plc v. Republic of Argentina, post, at 10. We conclude that the parties to the Hague Convention did not intend equitable tolling to apply to the 1-year period in Article 12.

It is our “responsibility to read the treaty in a manner ‘consistent with the shared expectations of the contracting parties.’” Olympic Airways v. Husain, 540 U. S. 644, 650 (2004) (quoting Air France v. Saks, 470 U. S. 392, 399 (1985); emphasis added). Even if a background principle is relevant to the interpretation of federal statutes, it has no proper role in the interpretation of treaties unless that principle is shared by the parties to “an agreement among sovereign powers,” Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines Co., 516 U. S. 217, 226 (1996). Lozano has not identified a background principle of equitable tolling that is shared by the signatories to the Hague Convention. To the contrary, Lozano concedes that in the context of the Convention, “foreign courts have failed to adopt equitable tolling . . . because they lac[k] the presumption that we [have].” Tr. of Oral Arg. 19–20. While no signatory state’s court of last resort has resolved the question, intermediate courts of appeals in several states have rejected equitable tolling….

I don’t see anything too dramatically different in this reasoning than the Court’s earlier pronouncements.  More interesting, perhaps, is the Court’s unwillingness to let the existence of implementing legislation via federal statute impact its interpretative analysis:

It does not matter to this conclusion that Congress enacted a statute to implement the Hague Convention. See ICARA, 42 U. S. C. §§11601–11610. ICARA does not address the availability of equitable tolling. Nor does it purport to alter the Convention. See §11601(b)(2) (“The provisions of [ICARA] are in addition to and not in lieu of the provisions of the Convention”). In fact, Congress explicitly recognized “the need for uniform international interpretation of the Convention.” §11601(b)(3)(B). Congress’ mere enactment of implementing legislation did not somehow import background principles of American law into the treaty interpretation process, thereby altering our understanding of the treaty itself.

There’s more later in the opinion offering views on the negotiators’ intent as well as the object and purpose of the Hague Convention itself.  But, I’ll leave that for readers to comment on if anyone is inclined to do so.

2014 ASIL Certificates of Merit Announced

by Duncan Hollis

I had the great pleasure the last several months to serve on ASIL’s Book Awards Committee (along with Jutta Brunnée, Jean d’Aspremont, Saira Mohamed, and a very well organized chair in Jacob Cogan).  I’m pleased to announce that the Society’s Executive Council has selected three winners for 2014 based on our nominations.  The winners (plus the Committee’s accompanying citation) are as follows:

Certificate of Merit for a Preeminent Contribution to Creative Scholarship:  Ryan Goodman and Derek Jinks, Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights through International Law (Oxford University Press 2013).

In Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights Through International Law, Ryan Goodman and Derek Jinks offer a groundbreaking theory of acculturation that illuminates how social processes can promote human rights and, more generally, can influence norms. “Acculturation” refers to “the general process by which actors adopt the beliefs and behavioral patterns of the surrounding culture.” The authors distinguish acculturation from two other mechanisms of social influence: “material inducement,” or the offering of rewards for conformity or punishments for nonconformity with a state’s or institution’s demands, and “persuasion,” whereby actors internalize new norms through a process of social learning and “redefine their interests and identities accordingly.” Goodman and Jinks offer a sophisticated account that both defends the relevance of acculturation and acknowledges its weaknesses in some areas. The theoretical complexity and methodological rigor of Socializing States make this a book that should be studied by any scholar interested in promotion of human rights, the spread of global norms, regime design, or compliance. It has already changed scholarship in these areas and will certainly continue to influence the field in the years to come.

Certificate of Merit for High Technical Craftsmanship and Utility to Practicing Lawyers and Scholars:  Robert Kolb, The International Court of Justice (Hart Publishing 2013)

Robert Kolb’s International Court of Justice provides a magisterial, lucid study of its subject. The breadth and depth of the treatment are impressive: Kolb takes the reader from the history of the Court, to its role in international society, to the more technical questions concerning its composition, powers and procedures, to the development of its jurisprudence, and to its future. The finely grained discussion provides much more than a mere survey of the Court’s constitutive instruments and decisions. It engages the Court as an institution and asks how it actually operates, and secures efficacy and authority in doing so. The book’s careful and detailed coverage of the Court’s legal framework and operation will benefit practitioners and scholars alike. There is no doubt that Kolb’s volume immediately takes a place among the authoritative references on the Court.

Certificate of Merit in a Specialized Area of International Law:  Bardo Fassbender and Anne Peters eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law (Oxford University Press 2012).

The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law innovatively and comprehensively provides a timely and ambitious global history of international law from the sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Under the skilled editorship of Bardo Fassbender and Anne Peters, the contributors, experts who themselves come from all parts of the world, present a history that imagines international law as the product of different regions, cultures, actors, and eras. Setting a new agenda for the field, the Handboowill be the indispensable starting point for students and researchers exploring the history of international law.

The awards will get presented at this year’s ASIL Gala Dinner.  I’m looking forward to seeing the authors there and having a chance to congratulate them personally on their achievements.

Welcome to the Blogosphere AJIL Unbound

by Duncan Hollis

I’m pleased to flag the fact that the American Journal of International Law has recently launched its own blog — AJIL Unbound.  Interested readers can find out more about the project and the Journal‘s interest in reader feedback here.  In the meantime, AJIL Unbound is currently hosting an on-line discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. in concert with the Journal‘s print-based Agora on that same case in its October 2013 issue.  I look forward to reading these posts and also to seeing how AJIL Unbound develops and evolves in the weeks and months ahead.

Barry E. Carter 1942-2014

by Duncan Hollis

We here at Opinio Juris were saddened to hear of the passing last week of Georgetown Professor Barry Carter.  Our condolences go out to his friends and family. Georgetown Dean William Treanor has a tribute to Barry here.

For my part, I’ve used Barry’s textbook (which he originally authored with Philip Trimble, then Curt Bradley, and now Allen Weiner) ever since I started teaching international law. Despite a heavy U.S. emphasis, it offers a compelling and highly accessible introduction to international law.  I know it’s part of the reason so many students find themselves drawn to a career in international law. In recent months, I’d enjoyed getting to know Barry more as we both served as Advisers to the 4th Restatement on Foreign Relations Law project.  I enjoyed his many comments to that effort and I know his contributions there will be sorely missed.

Readers can leave their own memories and tributes to Barry on a page at Georgetown Law’s website here.

The United States breaches the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations . . . Again

by Duncan Hollis

News out of Texas today that it executed Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican national, for killing a police officer, Guy Gaddis.  Tamayo was one of the nationals Mexico named in the Avena case.  Thus, he fell within the scope of the ICJ’s order that the United States provide ‘review and reconsideration’ of the conviction and sentence of named Mexican nationals in light of the U.S. failure to provide a right to consular access within a reasonable time of their arrest pursuant to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR).  Thus, whatever Texas’ interests in ensuring justice was served on someone who killed a police officer, the execution is a clear violation of U.S. obligations under the ICJ Statute (Art. 59), the UN Charter (Art. 94), and, of course, the VCCR itself (Art. 36), given US adherence at the time to the VCCR’s Optional Protocol.

This marks (I believe) the third Mexican national Texas has executed since the ICJ issued its decision in Avena, and since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Medellin that the US treaty obligations in question are non-self executing, meaning that as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, the Executive is powerless to stop Texas absent further implementation of the VCCR (or other treaties) by federal legislation.  The prospects of Congressional action to implement Avena, however, seem pretty dim at this point.

So, what happens now? Will Mexico continue to treat each new execution with the same weight as it has previously?  There are still dozens of Mexican nationals to whom the Avena decision had purported to offer relief. I also wonder if the State Department will maintain the same level of lobbying against these executions or if its statements will become more a matter of lip service?  I’d note, for example, the extent of federal lobbying seems to be lessening over time — compare Kerry’s comments on Tamayo’s case with the 2008 efforts by the White House, State, and Justice Department to delay Mr. Medellin’s execution).  In other words, will the regularity with which these executions (and the arguments surrounding them) seem destined to occur diminish their visibility for either the States themselves or their nationals?  Is Mexico’s claim against the United States strengthened or weakened by the United States’ continued inability (or some might say unwillingness) to comply with its international obligations?  As a formal matter, one would have to insist that Mexico has more to complain about with each execution.  But, on a more practical level, I’d argue Mexico’s chances for relief are likely to diminish the more the international community comes to expect continued U.S. non-compliance with the Avena judgment.  That may not be the right result, but I’m thinking it’s the most likely one. What do readers think?  Am I missing something?

 

 

Is the New Iranian Nuclear Deal a Secret Treaty?

by Duncan Hollis

Well, it’s not exactly a secret treaty in the sense that yesterday, the news wires were abuzz about the fact that the United States, Iran and five other world powers concluded an agreement to implement Iran’s earlier November deal on its nuclear program.  But, what’s being held back is the actual text of the deal.  There’s not many details (the only story I found on this was here). Still, at this point it’s not clear whether or not yesterday’s implementing agreement is actually a treaty or just another political commitment like the deal last November?  Assuming it is legally binding, it’s also unclear as to why the text is not being released?  Is this just a temporary delay pending a good scrub by treaty lawyers of the final text and any language/translation issues?  Or, is it that some of the implementation agreements’ contents are being treated as classified by one or more of the participants/parties such that they have no intention of ever releasing the text?

Now, as I’ve written in the past, there’s a tendency among students of international relations to assume that secret treaties died with Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points of light speech and its admonition for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind.”  That view was codified, first in Article 18 of the Treaty of Versailles, and later (in a looser form) in Article 102 of the U.N. Charter (requiring Member States to register and allow to be published ”[e]very treaty and every international agreement” they make with the understanding that unregistered treaties may not be invoked before any organ of the United Nations).  But, as far as international law is concerned, reports of the extinction of secret treaties appear exaggerated.  As D.N. Hutchinson noted here back in 1993, Article 102 is most often honored in the breach, and has little relevance today to determining the legal status of an agreement (the ICJ appears to agree given its holdings in the jurisdictional phase of Qatar v. Bahrain).  Thus, I’m not terribly surprised by the idea that the text of the deal may be secret even if its existence is not (particularly given the ‘nuclear’ subject-matter).  Moreover, I don’t think the fact that Iran and these other States concluded it without making the text publicly available will deny it the status of a treaty under international law.

A more important question may be, given the reality of some significant Congressional hostility to the deal, whether keeping its text secret will prove problematic under U.S. law or the domestic law of any of the other State participants?  I can’t speak to the domestic law of other States, but on the U.S. front, I have my doubts. There are obvious questions as to what legal authority the United States has to conclude this implementation agreement (i.e. is it a sole executive agreement, or does the Obama Administration view some existing legislative authority as sufficient to treat it as a congressional-executive agreement?).  Assuming legal authority to conclude an implementation agreement, however, there is statutory authority for it to be done in secret provided the Executive Branch follows the appropriate procedures under the 1972 Case-Zablocki Act:

The Secretary of State shall transmit to the Congress the text of any international agreement (including the text of any oral international agreement, which agreement shall be reduced to writing), other than a treaty, to which the United States is a party as soon as practicable after such agreement has entered into force with respect to the United States but in no event later than sixty days thereafter. However, any such agreement the immediate public disclosure of which would, in the opinion of the President, be prejudicial to the national security of the United States shall not be so transmitted to the Congress but shall be transmitted to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives under an appropriate injunction of secrecy to be removed only upon due notice from the President. Any department or agency of the United States Government which enters into any international agreement on behalf of the United States shall transmit to the Department of State the text of such agreement not later than twenty days after such agreement has been signed. (emphasis added)

Simply put, U.S. law accepts and regulates secret treaties and other international agreements. Thus, I don’t think the fact of its secrecy will sway proponents (or opponents) of this deal one way or another.  Even so, I’m curious to know more about the Iranian implementation agreement.  Is it intended to be legally binding or a political commitment?  And, if it’s a treaty, what’s the Executive Branch view as to the legal authority to conclude it short of getting new legislation or going to the Senate under Article II of the Constitution?  I’d welcome comments from readers who know more details here than I do.

Hat Tip:  Orde Kittrie

“Love is Greater than Treaties”

by Duncan Hollis

That’s the punchline of a podcast Radiolab just released this week, provocatively titled “Sex, Ducks and The Founding Feud”.  Along with John Bellinger, Joseph Ellis and Nick Rosenkranz, I was interviewed for the story by Jad Abumrad and Kelsey Padgett.  It was a fun experience overall trying to explain to a general audience the importance of the US treaty power and how it plays out in the Bond case, and Missouri v Holland before that. On the whole, I enjoyed hearing some fabulous sound editing (which is not surprising given Jad’s previous work won him a McArthur Genius award). Entertaining as it is though, I also found the piece quite thoughtful in framing the importance of the treaty power and offering both sides of the arguments, even if one might quibble over a few details here and there (eg the constitutionality of the implementing legislation versus that of the treaty).

Interested readers can take a listen here.

 

 

The New Iran Deal Doesn’t Look Legally Binding. Does it Matter?

by Duncan Hollis

A flurry of news today over the announcement that Iran has cut a deal with six major world powers — the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, France and the UK — plus Germany.  The text of the ‘Joint Plan of Action’ is also widely available (see here or here).

My first reaction on looking at this ‘deal’ is that it’s not legally binding under international law.  Look at how the Preamble begins:

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons….

The ‘goal’ implies something aspirational rather than required.  The big-ticket commitment that Iran won’t seek or develop nuclear weapons is also referenced as a ‘reaffirmation’ rather than an affirmative commitment via this text.

Similarly, the operative paragraphs maintain an emphasis on avoiding language of legal intent:

Elements of a first step

The first step would be time-bound, with a duration of 6 months, and renewable by mutual consent, during which all parties will work to maintain a constructive atmosphere for negotiations in good faith.

Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • From the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line
  • Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months. . . . .

*********
In return, the E3/EU+3 would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • Pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales, enabling Iran’s current customers to  purchase their current average amounts of crude oil. Enable the repatriation of an agreed amount of revenue held abroad. For such oil sales, suspend the EU and U.S. sanctions on associated insurance and transportation services.
  • Suspend U.S. and EU sanctions on:
    • Iran’s petrochemical exports, as well as sanctions on associated services.5
    • Gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions on associated services.
  • · Suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran’s auto industry, as well as sanctions on associated services . . .

(emphasis added)

Note the operative verb in these paragraphs is ‘would’ not ‘shall’ (which everyone would agree connotes an intention to be legally bound) or even ‘will’ (which the United States often uses to convey a legal intent even through the British and several other countries insist signals an agreement meant to have political, in lieu of legal, force).

To further emphasize the political and non-legally binding nature of this agreement, note the two sides emphasize that the measures listed are ‘voluntary’.  Moreover, the document is unsigned and lacks final clauses.  So, the bottom line for me . . . this isn’t binding under international law.  It’s a political commitment, not a legal one.

OK.  Say I’m right?  Why does it matter if this is not a treaty?  To be clear, there’s nothing entirely novel about concluding a major political document in a non-legal form — from the Atlantic Charter, to the Shanghai Communique to the Helsinki Accords, there are plenty of ‘big ticket’ precedents for doing major deals in legally non-binding texts.  Nor is it that political commitments are devoid of content — to be sure they can contain much that is aspirational or even puffery.  But, many political commitments can contain significant expectations of changes to future behavior and, at first glance, I’d say the Joint Plan of Action falls in the latter category.  The text is chock full of commitments both sides indicate they’ll be taking in the next six months on the path to a comprehensive settlement with respect to the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

That said, I think there are at least three significant implications of the choice of a non-treaty form for this deal.  First, I think it offers all sides flexibility – all seven parties are cloaking their expectations of what’s going to happen now behind terms that allow them to turn on a dime as necessary, either to back away from their ‘voluntary measures’ or to adjust them as all involved carefully monitor the other side’s performance.  Indeed, I expect that such flexibility was a key criterion for the sort of cooperation this deal envisages.  Second, by choosing a political deal rather than a legal one, I think the results are less credible than if they’d been done via a more august instrument like a treaty.  The treaty signals a level of commitment that just isn’t available with respect to an unsigned ‘joint plan’.   Now, maybe a major legal text wasn’t possible in the time frame all sides were working under, but I’d be surprised if any subsequent, final deal isn’t coached in a legal form given the greater credibility that accompanies those sorts of promises.

For the United States, though, I think the third, and most significant, implication of this deal taking a political form is the fact that the Obama Administration doesn’t have to get the Senate or the Congress as a whole to approve it.  Legally binding treaties and international agreements require the conclusion of specific domestic approval procedures.  The Constitution contemplates the Senate giving advice and consent by a 2/3rd majority to Treaties (and most arms control agreements are done as Treaties).  Modern practice meanwhile more regularly favors ‘congressional-executive’ agreements where Congress approves of the conclusion of the agreement before or after the deal is done.  In other cases, the President may invoke his sole executive powers to authorize the conclusion of a deal by himself.  But, when it comes to political commitments, there are no constitutional precedents requiring that Congress as a whole or the Senate authorize the commitment’s conclusion.  Now, together with Josh Newcomer, I’ve argued previously that this status quo is constitutionally problematic where political commitments can function in much the same way as treaties.  I fear political commitments may function as a loop-hole for the Executive to do deals that he could not do if he had to go to Congress or the Senate.  I’m not sure that this is such a case, but it’s certainly worth thinking about the consequences of having the United States pursue this major foreign policy shift where the U.S. legislature has so little say in the matter (at least until such time as any deal requires changes to U.S. law itself).

What do others think?  Am I right the Joint Plan of Action is not intended to be a treaty or an international agreement?  And do you agree that it was a means for the United States to conclude a deal without involving a Congress, at least some portion of which has been overtly hostile to any negotiations with Iran?

[Update: over at Lawfare, Ingrid Wuerth rightly calls me to task for my earlier title -- referencing a 'U.S.-Iran' deal when there are 7 States involved -- en route to discussing whether this text would've required congressional or Senate approval IF it was legally binding.  I've fixed the title accordingly and recommend readers check out Ingrid's post.]

Doesn’t the U.S. Senate Care about Mercury?

by Duncan Hollis

On November 6, the United States signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury and deposited an instrument of acceptance indicating its consent to be bound by the treaty on its entry into force, making it the first nation to do so.  Here’s how UNEP summarizes the Convention:

The Minamata Convention for Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It was agreed at the fifth and final session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Geneva, Switzerland at 7 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, 19 January 2013.

The major highlights of the Minamata Convention on Mercury include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, control measures on air emissions and the international regulation of the informal sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

The treaty certainly seems to address an important environmental problem with significant momentum from State participants — although opened for signature only a month ago, it has already garnered 93 signatories (of course, everyone most people know that those signatures are not the same as consent, which is why the United States took the additional step of depositing an instrument of acceptance).  The treaty will enter into force on the deposit of the 50th instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance or approval.   

What interests me about the Mercury treaty though is not just its contents — which are the latest iteration of multilateral environmental governance — but the process for U.S. acceptance.  Here’s how the State Department describes it:

The Minamata Convention represents a global step forward to reduce exposure to mercury, a toxic chemical with significant health effects on the brain and nervous system. The United States has already taken significant steps to reduce the amount of mercury we generate and release to the environment, and can implement Convention obligations under existing legislative and regulatory authority. The Minamata Convention complements domestic measures by addressing the transnational nature of the problem.

Three questions.  First, is the Administration considering this a congressional executive agreement? If so, shouldn’t they be a bit more specific about which U.S. laws authorize U.S. participation in this treaty.  In particular, it would be interesting to know if the legislation authorizes not just the regulation of mercury but U.S. participation in an international legal regime regulating mercury (I’m guessing it doesn’t).  That’s a big distinction, especially since the Obama Administration has already gotten into quite a dust-up over how it reads statutes with respect to authorizing U.S. consent to treaties (e.g., ACTA).  And if there’s no statutory authority to join the Minamata Convention, doesn’t that mean it must be a sole executive agreement?

Second, where’s the U.S. Senate in all this? As Oona Hathaway has explained there are few, if any, ways to rationally explain why certain international agreements go to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent versus those that Congress approves via ex ante or ex post legislation (let alone those that are done under the President’s sole executive powers).  Rationality aside, however, there is a long history of the Senate exercising its prerogatives over certain subject areas when it comes to giving advice and consent to treaties.  Thus, when President Bush suggested he’d not send the Moscow Treaty on arms control with Russia to the Senate, the Senate issued a non-partisan threat request that he do so . . . and the Administration changed course and obliged the Senate by sending it there.  I’d always understood multilateral environmental agreements to warrant similar treatment.  With one notable exception — the 1976 Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention and its various protocols —  I believe multilateral environmental agreements have always gone through the Senate advice and consent process . . . until now.

This raises a third and final question:  Why did the Administration decide to bypass the Senate in consenting to the Minamata Convention? Perhaps the Senate indicated to the Obama Administration that they would not object to having this treaty concluded as an executive agreement?  Or, maybe the statutory authority (would love further details on what it is) is more robust than in the ACTA context.  Alternatively, I wonder, if this isn’t the Obama Administration response to the Senate’s repeated intransigence lately to approve any of the Administration’s major treaty priorities; from the Disabilities Convention to UNCLOS, the Senate’s been pretty deadlocked of late. Maybe the idea here was to send a warning shot to demonstrate that the Administration no longer feels bound to adhere to past practice when it comes to reserving certain treaty subjects for Senate attention and/or that the Administration wants to remind the Senate that it has other ways to pursue its international agenda if the Senate continues to delay or deny consent to the treaties it receives from the White House.

I’d welcome comments, especially from any readers who know more of the back story on this Convention or the U.S. approach to consenting to it.